If we still need our co-ops, then our co-ops need us

PUTNEY — Recently, we have seen a fair amount of upheaval in our two local food co-ops. I'm referring specifically to various labor and management issues at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, and the current “streamlining the by-laws” debacle at the Putney Co-op.

However, this all might have a positive effect, because the open debate encourages more member participation - something in short supply. Participation is what these highly democratic organizations actually depend on.

I am a food co-op member-owner who has been disappointed with long-term trends of non-participation at our food co-ops. Those trends, such as alarming consolidation in a booming natural-foods sector, has led to the “Whole-Foods-ization” of some food cooperatives.

Well-meaning managers and boards of directors depend increasingly on management consultants. Member interest in serving on boards and committees has gradually waned. Member hours (for discounts, if the co-op offers it) were allowed to become far less important.

With co-op management driven to increase traffic and sales, the result became slick, attractive retail outlets that are great at selling pricey, highly packaged, super-healthy products to whoever can afford them.

What about the rest of us?

Was this series of events caused by member apathy and disinterest? Much can be blamed on national economic trends, like people working multiple jobs and technology's apparent drain on people's free time.

But co-ops are not just companies for us to speculate in and observe. Members are empowered to change things by voting, but instead we shop elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the supermarket companies have built organic and bulk departments, and even Walmart now carries organic produce. Do we even need our co-ops anymore?

Before moving to Vermont in the late 1980s, I served on the board of directors of another food co-op near Boston. That co-op was created at a time when there were few places to buy health foods.

Later, this store had to compete with a Bread & Circus (now Whole Foods) supermarket down the road, but thousands were still shopping at the co-op specifically because it was not run by a for-profit corporation and because it was run democratically by its members.

Like many new directors, I was clueless about running a retail business when I volunteered. We made so many mistakes that our store almost closed; we were bailed out by another food co-op across the city. No, we weren't executives - just members doing our level best to improve our vital, community-owned resource.

My family became members of the Brattleboro Food Co-op and, later, the Putney Food Co-op when we moved to this area, but now we can't afford to shop very much. There are many other households like mine.

Thanks to its location, the Putney Co-op does an excellent job serving its better-off members and tourists getting on and off I-91. The rest of us often must visit the supermarkets or Mr. G's (or worse); or we buy directly from farmers.

Is that what co-op member-owners want?

While there's nothing inherently wrong with serving tourists (to them it might as well be a cute rural Whole Foods), that's not what the Putney co-op was originally created to do. It was created during World War II during to provide residents with food sources in a time of severe shortages. Now, ironically, most food-insecure residents never go near the co-ops.

Also, there are many members and nonmembers (read: future members) who wish our co-ops better served their respective needs. Here's the catch: more members need to speak up, go to meetings, join committees, and serve these democratic organizations.

It was a good move to sound a public alarm to their board, as Mimi Yahn and other Putney members have been doing. Some managers and members challenge her claims, and that's healthy debate. Ultimately, we must not allow any outside interests to creep into a co-op's basic DNA and remove our rights to participate.

Economic benefit to their members is, after all, why all consumer cooperatives were created in the first place. (The world has many types of co-ops for producers, including industrial concerns, and large farmer groups such as Cabot.) There are close to a dozen such co-ops in our region. The best thing is, each co-op has its own refreshing personality - not a single one looks or operates quite like the others.

Local co-ops are still on the cutting edge, supporting farmers and the localvore movement. They're critical to the fair-trade movement for sourcing product from Third World growers. They're generally good to their employees (thanks in part to the new union in Brattleboro). I think food co-ops have potentially more to offer, such as more affordable basic foods.

With a revival of activism worldwide, we are reminded that democracy is not a spectator sport. Just as governments do, co-ops depend on member-owners to get involved and stay involved. Otherwise, they might continue to evolve into just another institution serving the privileged.

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